The government plans to change the official definition of treasure to cover rare and precious archaeological finds, not just those that are more than 300 years old and made of gold or silver or precious metal, as the current law states.
Under the 1996 Treasure Act many items - such as a Roman bronze brooch found in Lincoln earlier this year (above) or the Crosby Garrett Roman helmet sold at auction in 2010 - were not deemed treasure and did not become property of the crown.
The Treasure Act came into law in 1996 and The British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was set up in 1997 so that archaeological objects found by the public can be voluntarily recorded.
Unless an object is defined as Treasure (under the Treasure Act), finders have no legal obligation to report them, but have been doing so voluntarily.
The popularity of metal detecting has grown and the number of archaeological objects unearthed by the British public and recorded since the start of PAS scheme 23 years ago has reached more than 1.5 million items (see below).
Hetty Gleave, a partner at Hunters Law and deputy chair of the Treasure Valuation Committee, said: “It seems the government agree that the definition should be changed and we understand the new definition will not be based on age or material alone.”
A specialist research project running next year will create the new definition and there will be opportunities for metal detectorists, archaeologists, museums, academics and curators to contribute.
Changes could include introducing a static date of 1714 rather than a rolling 300 years and it may include similarities to the current Waverley criteria such as outstanding aesthetic importance, connection with history and significance for study.
The Treasure Valuation Committee will work with the DCMS on the recommendations.
Roger Bland, chair of the Treasure Valuation Committee, said: “I welcome the publication of the government’s response to the Review of the Treasure Act. This document marks an important step forward in transforming the treasure process so that it continues to meet the aims of the Act.”
As a result of the public consultation, the government will also introduce new measures to improve the experience of the treasure process which include a new time limit to streamline some stages of the process, limiting the number of times the Treasure Valuation Committee can review a case and developing a mechanism to return unclaimed rewards to museums.
The latest data from the British Museum’s PAS report (for 2019) released this week, found 81,602 archaeological finds were recorded in 2019, an increase of over 10,000 on the previous year.
This brings the total on its Portable Antiquities Scheme database to more than 1.5 million objects.
The PAS scheme also noted that there had been an increase in digitally recorded finds, due to lockdown this year (especially during ‘full lockdown’ between March 22 to May 13), and more objects had been found in gardens.
During the first lockdown, 6251 finds were recorded with through PAS and the records of 22,507 finds on the database were updated; so far this year (2020) over 47,000 finds have been recorded.